Slightly grudgingly, just 'coz I hate bandwagons - literary and otherwise - I'll say that this book deserved all the hype it received.
Here are five things it did well that so many books crash and burn trying to do:No. 5:
It surprised me - overall (I don't know what I was expecting of a book about polygamous marriage, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't this) and in the individual details. There are a couple of twists in characters and plots that I really didn't see coming.No. 4:
It built character through scene and dialogue in ways that felt natural and real (after my recent experience with Shriver's So Much For That, I needed this). Some reviewers have taken Mr. Udall to task for focusing on so few characters and leaving the remainder as caricatures, but I disagree. If you think about the secondary characters - June, Trish, Leo, even Glory, while 'sketchy' they were remarkably varied, and I'd say pretty well fleshed out beyond being mere plot devices (they had their own stories to tell, right? While also being critical to the Golden/Rusty plotline). I'll give you Huila as perhaps the least successful character in that regard. But overall, I thought the secondary characters and plot(s) successful in their own right while also adding dimension to and resonating with the main story beautifully.No. 3:
It presented a unique point of view, which -- if Udall were less deft or compassionate; if it was more the central focus instead of the milieu -- could have been reality TV voyeurism that emphasized their otherness instead of docudrama empathy-building. Because of the essential humanity of each individual character, "they" (as in, fundamentalist Mormons engaged in plural marriage) were not a monolithic block of "others" (I take liberties to assume most of the 12 of you reading this are not involved in plural marriages - have I got that right?). Rather, they were individual characters whom we not only felt for
, but felt like.
They were us - or any other large family with its politics, petty squabbles, constantly shifting alliances and power dynamics. And she (or he) was me, in her or his insecurities, feelings of being inadequate or unloved or unsure or angry or sad or scared or lonely. In this sense, the docudrama isn't an apt metaphor. The plural marriage and fundamentalism were really just setting, context for the story of the family and the individuals in it.No. 2:
It was a great story
. In my Goldilocks evaluation, it had just enough depth and complexity to satisfy, not too much to overwhelm or frustrate. It had these strange details that seemed like asides (an ostrich named Raymond; picnics disrupted by atom bomb tests; a Mescal-swilling Mexican who provides guidance and support at just the right moment), and which could have been too much, too incidental, too over-the-top but instead added texture to the fabric of the story and were in some ways essential elements without which the whole thing could have fallen apart. It hit the sweet spot, at least for me, and in that regard I'd probably suggest a comparison with Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier Clay or Eugenides' Middlesex. If you liked them, you'll probably like this. It carried me along with its twists, turns, segues, digressions, highs and lows.No. 1:
And speaking of highs and lows: lots of reviewers have commented on this, and I have to say it's the dominant literary feature that gives this book its charm and its power. It's tragicomic in the most complete and classic sense. It is crazy funny, absurd, slapstick, rollicking good fun, while simultaneously - in the same paragraph or within one page - also poignant, devastating, heartbreaking and achingly sad. And the sadness is founded on a kind of "alone in a crowd" isolation that is just always so ... so ... I don't know what the word is. Familiar? Essential? Human?
Interestingly, it was not just Golden Richards, the titular lonely polygamist, who was lonely - it was all of them. All of them, in their own ways, which is the loneliest thing of all, isn't it?